As part of our 2016-2017 season we’re giving each of our core singers a turn at the helm of the blog. The below post below comes from our mezzo-soprano, Elisa Sutherland.
An admission: I am an incorrigible critic. I always judge books by their covers. First impressions, for me, last well beyond the point of being proven wrong.
So goes it with music: I often glance at a score and immediately form an opinion from anything but the music itself. If a work features lots of fast notes or copious accidentals, if my part consists mainly of rests, if the composer makes a note of which foreign country she was in whilst writing the piece or if he includes his middle initial, if the font of the title is of the “Real Book” variety… I usually base my opinion on these admittedly superficial characteristics, incapable as I am of that Mozartian feat of looking at a score and actually hearing what it sounds like.
To my credit, I am always pleased whenever I turn out to be wrong, which is most of the time.
For our concert in Syracuse and again here in New York, we are performing a set of three “scenes” by Erin Gee, taken from her larger work, SLEEP. I was familiar with Gee’s style, having sung an intricate chamber work of hers for soprano and clarinet, percussion and viola. I enjoyed it immensely: the singer and, indeed, the rest of the players are forced to mutter/stutter their way through a variety of soft fricatives, pitches appearing pointillistically throughout. The work is virtuosic in that the voice never rests, and also rarely rises above the dynamic of piano – a Herculean task to give to a subset of musician known for our dramatic tendencies. I loved the interplay between the need for constant expression and the limitation of softness – very satisfying.
When I looked through my score for SLEEP, I was disappointed. In the first movement, the second soprano part stays mainly within the range of a fourth, often in unison or perhaps triads with another singer. Occasional extended techniques, few rhythmic values more complex than a triplet. Worst of all, she calls for whistling, the singer’s most dreaded instruction. My part by itself was unremarkable. I quickly and satisfactorily slipped into my comfortable assumptions about the piece, and flipped to another score.
Of course, once we read through the music at our first rehearsal, I realized the extent of my hubris. A piece of chamber music is not contained in one part. In placing each of our lines on top of one another, Gee has created another experiment in the breadth and depth of quietness – this time, punctuated by silence and whispers. Unisons branch into thirds and triads; whistles appear, echo-like, floating in octaves above sustained notes. Hushed spoken syllables pass back and forth between voices. Any one part of this music taken by itself is meaningless – together, our six voices form an exquisite construction. Plus, Tim Keeler gets to beat-box.
I hope you have a chance to come to our concert, either in Syracuse or in New York at the DiMenna Center. Sure, we’re singing Taylor Brooks’ Motorman Sextet, a microtonal magnum opus of dizzying virtuosity; we’re blasting Andrew Waggoner’s stacked and jacked That Human Dream; we’re crooning our own Jeff Gavett’s eerie, interlocking Peccavi fateor; this music will astound and amaze. But Erin Gee’s music will make you consider the beauty of softness, the meaning in an unvoiced bilabial plosive, the very nature of sound. Perhaps, like me, your own assumptions will be challenged. And in the world we live in at this moment at this time, all I can hope for is that my first impressions will be proven wrong.